This essay was originally written for MOLD magazine Issue 5: SEEDS. You can read the original publication here.
Seeds are capsules of potential: packets of the raw materials needed to generate new life in an uncertain future. In the flinty, aspirational way that only evolution can design, the seed anticipates unwelcoming conditions, competition and a long journey before finding a safe haven. Biology, in its timeless struggle with our unyielding and stoney planet, has hedged her bets with the generosity of plant reproduction and the support systems wired into every seed. Nature knows that fertility and habitability are transient states on Earth, and if those conditions existed once, they will exist again. Nature’s expectation is not that every seed will fall on fertile ground, but that by investing nourishment and shared strategy in a diverse multitude of seeds, the seeds themselves may potentiate fertility.
Long before mammals appeared on Earth, plants and their seeds ruled. That is, in a literal, evolutionary sense, human societies evolved amidst an established world of plants, learning from them and creating wisdom from what plants revealed. In the palms of worried people, fearful of a future in which scarcity determines how we support others, how we plan our meals, and how proximate we are to death, seeds begin to resemble precious stones to gather and save. Through their biological programming and co-evolution with the human experience, humans may also view seeds as blueprints for building livable futures. As society trembles at the threshold of a dark corridor, seeds may teach us how to lovingly persist.
Photo Credit: Model making by Oliver Tate. Photography by Studio Romain Lenancker.
This essay was originally written for and published in Loam Magazine: Reawakening Resilience.
Soil has always been among my favorite things. Its sweet and full smell has always been intoxicating. The colors within it span a spectrum from creamy taupe to vibrant ochre and the bright black of a dying ember. When held, its cold weight in your hand is a reminder of how much water, and life, it contains. I came to love soil because of intuition, disposition, and luck. My hands met soil because my parents bought a house in the suburbs after years of living in an East Coast city. They moved to a place with groves of trees and occasional farms because they wanted a good life for their children. The good life, it seemed, was nearer to soil. So through happenstance and proximity, I become acquainted with the earth’s skin. As my parents dug deep into the ground to plant gardens in our new suburban space, I found myself increasingly familiar with the dead and dying material under my often-bare feet.
In college, I found myself thinking more about how to turn my familiarity with nature and love of asking questions into a career. I was fortunate to find people who encouraged that interest, and I found my way to graduate school to study forest ecosystems. But as I went from being a lover of nature to an expert, I began to see that my aspiration to be an ecologist was not just anomalous, but a disturbance to a much larger structure. It wasn’t just unique that a young girl with brown skin and thick, curly hair fell in love with soil, or that she even that she transmuted that love into a job. It struck me that the rarity of women of color becoming environmental experts was no accident, but by design.
The article below was first written for the Free Radicals Blog and is being shared again at my personal blog below. Find the original post here.
I led a group of college students on a field ecology trip to the Adirondacks in the fall of 2016. As I prepared for the trip, it occurred to me that their experience with camping and hiking would vary. Some people are to the outdoors as Beyonce is to the stage, raised in nature’s glow and clad in Gortex as she was in sequins. Others might have a little exposure to nature, like children given wine at the dinner table: introduced early enough to play it cool in later encounters. What excited me were the students for whom the word stakes only invoked dinner or gambling, not shelter. I looked forward to watching their reactions to the torrential downpour we would sleep through and the effusive sun meeting the horizon the next morning. How incredible would it be to witness someone’s nascent relationship with nature take shape?
I realized disdainfully that I would hardly see this moment during the trip—almost every student in the group had already spent plenty of time hiking. Their previous experience with the outdoors was likely the reason they had signed up for the class in the first place. Despite my initial excitement, the excursion ended up only sharpening the point of an old thorn: the racial divisions within natural spaces.
Sometimes I think about what it would have been like if I had chosen a different job. Had I picked another career, a non-science career, what would life look like right now? Some things wouldn’t be very different at all. I would still have a snack drawer in my work desk, regardless of whether it was in an elementary school or in a press room. My days would still be punctuated by finely calibrated breaks during which I unbutton the top of my pants for a few minutes, a little gift to myself. I would still try to bring baked goods to meetings of all levels of importance (Madame President, the situation in Mosul is dire, but these brownies should help!).
But if I hadn’t gone into science, I imagine the most different thing would be not having to explain what my job actually is every time it comes up. How often does a nurse get asked “what do you mean ‘nurse’”? How regularly does an accountant get quizzical looks after bantering introductions over cocktails? Unless that accountant brings his pet bird to drinks, this never happens!
Lesson: Don't be a dirtbag
Lawd. It has been a minute since I had time (made time?) to write and think and not compute. It is without doubt that I do all manner of better when I take a bit of time to put some words down. I might start by answering the eternal question of "Sak pase?" , though despite the pithiness of the question, the answer is bulky. I'm in the midst of an impressive balancing act that may collapse at any moment. I've been concomitantly
This is on my experience with balancing efforts to increase diversity in a homogeneous academic field and doing the science research I love. If you have thoughts, please share in the comments.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been shelving my hobbies (writing, painting, making stuff out of other stuff) in lieu of a new task, one that isn’t at all a hobby, but is definitely not part of my job. My job as a graduate student is to absorb knowledge and skills from as many places as I can, to translate what I’ve garnered into some new knowledge, and to put that knowledge into the world as published research. (For context, I also buy and sample international variations on the cheese puff and I watch what my mother would call 'television that does not edify the mind', so it’s not all fun and games.) I do research because I love it and I think it makes me better. I do research because I like to think it might make the world better.
One time, when I was 15 years old and considering a (more lucrative?) career in acting and screenwriting, my class took a trip to have a master class with a REAL ACTOR. He was none other than Chris Sarandon, who is the brother of, yes, Susan Sarandon. Having watched his most notable film Fright Night in preparation for my brush with fame, I was pretty sure Chris Sarandon would be a sexy spooky vampire, in addition to being mildly famous. Fifteen year old me was extremely concerned with impressing him. In the end, Chris Sarandon was not sexy (I’m lyin’, he was), spooky or interested in turning my classmates into vampires. He was just a nice older man who encouraged me to break into screenwriting. This past week, I had a similar experience with scientist, advocate for women in science and non-vampire Dr. Sasha Reed of the US Geological Survey. Despite my nervousness about meeting such a superstar, talking with her was so refreshing and uplifting, two things I’ve almost never felt upon meeting a fancy scientist.
Sasha is a biogeochemist who thinks about how global environmental change will alter ecosystem function via terrestrial nutrient cycling. She’s drawn to the Earth’s extremes, so her study sites range from the wet tropical forests of Puerto Rico and Hawaii to the aridlands of the American west. Her publication record is poppin’ and the amazing range of her expertise is almost enough to make me turn off Grey’s Anatomy and start exploring new areas of the literature (almost). On top of all that, she was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2011 by President Obama, so you know she’s doing something right.
“There was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. Even if her father did not read out loud these opinions, any girl could read them for herself; and the reading, even in the nineteenth century, must have lowered her vitality, and told profoundly upon her work. There would always have been that assertion—you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that—to protest against, to overcome.”
This is the epigraph of a paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology titled “Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance” (Spencer et al. 1999). I’ve got to start by saying that this is an amazing quotation to open a paper. Woolf published A Room of One’s Own in 1929, when the borders surrounding the acts of being and doing were explicit and codified for women. Decades later, in 1999, Woolf’s lamentation remained relevant and remains relevant in 2016. Part of Spencer’s doctoral dissertation was this study on the effect of stereotype threat, which the authors define as “the experience of being in a situation where one faces judgment based on societal stereotypes about one’s group”, on how individuals deal with situations where their actions may reinforce the existing stereotype. Not only was this research unique at the time for exploring the experience of being judged or stereotyped, but it also started by focusing on a societally common but rarely critically examined stereotype—that females perform poorly in math compared to males. Spencer hypothesized, correctly, that when you know someone is judging you, that the expectations set for you are low or negative, that knowledge interferes with how well you can do, even if you are capable of performing well.
There was no Summer Jam blog series. I'll come out and say it because I dropped that ball like the sweaty-palmed non-athlete that I am. So there. But I have some other thoughts for you. This post could also be called "Sue Pierre's: Why Did I Get Accepted 2". That's a Tyler Perry reference for those who don't like garbage cinema.
This semester has been a bunch of things to me. It was mostly a time of transition and realizing (but when are we not doing those things?). It was pain and relief too close together to tell apart. Through this semester, I’ve been served a few lessons and one that I want to talk about here, mostly a note to myself.
I switched lab groups. I started a new advising relationship. I worked more independently than ever, and didn’t fail. I published my first paper. I became a mentor. I decided that academia does not equal success. I looked around me and noticed that I’m not the only one who’s feeling exhausted and tired of this grind. And that despite my exhaustion, the reasons to persevere persist. They’re there.
My life, both as a Graduate Student and as A Human in The World, has been sort of chaotic of late, leading me to avoid trying to sit down and get my thoughts about the things happening to/because of me into an intelligible format. Not just an intelligible format but more importantly, one that matters to anyone besides my personified diary.
Diary: It’s been a while Sue, girl. Tell it how it is! Let it all out. Don’t even worry about how it will all sound. This is a safe space for your tender grad student underbelly.
Sue: Diary, thank you so much for saying that. You’re always so available and I love that I can imagine you as Donna from Parks and Rec and not feel like I’m perpetuating stereotypes in this safe space.
Diary: Whatever, girl, I will be as sassy and supportive as you need me to be. All you have to do is write some sentences in me, at some point. Just a few.
Sue: (Fidgeting with a melting tub of ice cream) I’m really sorry I’m so busy right now I can’t write about my life but thanks again for reminding me, you’re literally the greatest. *Sheepishly opens Netflix*
Diary: -_____- Scandal, really? Basic.
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.